The difference between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla is as simple as AC and DC, otherwise known as the battle between Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). Thomas Edison had been in the electrical business since the late 1870s, and was operating upwards of 1,500 DC powered generating systems up and down the Atlantic coast. The problem with DC is transmission. Efficient and economical DC transmission requires high voltage which becomes too impractical for low voltage users such as lighting. AC on the other hand utilizes transformers for stepping up and stepping down the voltage. As a result, DC voltage cannot easily be manipulated, and therefore DC is not readily transmissible.
Tesla (partnering with George Westinghouse) designed the first hydroelectric AC generating plant in Niagara Falls, N.Y. by harnessing the tremendous (free) hydro-power of the falls. Originally sized at (3) 5,000 horsepower units these AC generators were able to transmit electricity 22 miles to serve the industrial needs of nearby Buffalo, N.Y. The ability to transmit low cost electric power over land, 22 miles to Buffalo, put Buffalo on the map as an industrial leader in the sectors of steel production, chemical processing, automotive, airplanes, and grain milling, to mention only a few.
On November 16, 1896, the first transmission of electrical power between two cities was sent from Niagara Falls to various industries in Buffalo from Tesla’s first two-phase power plants. Tesla’s Niagara Falls system marked the end of Edison’s roadmap for electrical transmission. Tesla’s contributions to the modern world are regarded as more important and longer lasting than those of his nemesis Thomas Edison; however his notoriety is somewhat obscure.
Tesla’s inventions spurned the second coming of the industrial revolution, he is the unsung creator of the electric age, without whom our auto ignition, telephone, alternating power generation, alternating current transmission, the induction motor (via the Tesla coil), fluorescent lighting, radio and television would have been impossible. All in all, Tesla obtained over 300 patents over his lifetime. Besides his work in electromagnetism, Tesla also contributed in varying degrees to the establishment of robotics, remote control, radar and computer science.
For these reasons and many more, Tesla should be referred to as the “Godfather of Sustainability.” He pioneered “free” energy sources such as hydro electric power. It was the capitalists of his day who re-directed these efforts away from hydro electric power to more conducive “income” generating processes such as coal and oil powered generators.
Tesla also pioneered research in terrestrial stationary waves and wireless electricity. By discovery, he proved he could light 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles. Once again the capitalist icons frowned on such discoveries as non-profitable. As in the words of J.P. Morgan, who withdrew his financial backing of Tesla’s research saying, “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?”
How different would life be today if we could all draw from the wireless electricity envisioned by Tesla over 100 years ago? Such benefits would include; no impairment to our environment, greatly diminished consumption of our natural resources, no dependency on foreign oils, unlimited use of electrically powered vehicles, and on and on. I am thankful for the hundreds of inventions Nikola Tesla gave to mankind and only wonder what a better world this would be if the scientific community embraced and enhanced just a handful of the many discoveries that he initiated 110 years ago. He provided us with the keys to unlock the doors of innovation for us; all we have to do is walk through. Saving tomorrow begins today!
“That’s human nature. Nobody does anything until it’s too late.” Michael Crichton